By Martin Ricard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Every June for the past eight years, hundreds of undocumented high school and college students have traveled to Washington from across the country and urged Congress to pass a bill that would make it easier for them to become citizens and pursue higher education.
They showed up again yesterday, staging a mock graduation ceremony designed to highlight the plight of about 65,000 undocumented people who graduate from U.S. high schools every year but often find that their legal status prevents them from attending college.
"Share your story with close friends," said Benita, who did not give her last name because she is in the country without papers. Having recently received two bachelor's degrees from St. Mary's University in Texas, she encouraged participants in the event: "Wherever you are, choose to fight. Be more than a dreamer. Be a leader."
Almost 400 students and their supporters were drawn this year to the event, organized by United We Dream. They want Congress to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act, which has been introduced in the House and the Senate by a bipartisan group of legislators. The Dream Act last came up for a vote in the Senate in 2007, but was rejected after critics warned it would encourage illegal immigration.
Without federal laws on the issue, a wide range of rules have developed in different states. In some places, undocumented college students can get financial aid. In other states, financial aid is prohibited.
With President Obama in office, advocates have revived their hope that the Dream Act will be considered and passed. Last week, Obama told an audience at the Esperanza National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast that he was committed to immigration reform. Tomorrow, White House staff are expected to meet with key Congressional leaders to discuss immigration policy.
"The order of the day is obviously health care, which usually means all hands on deck for people at the White House and Congress," said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the Washington-based National Council of La Raza. "But it's a good sign that even though there's all hands on deck for health care, they're having this meeting, which we see as providing a beginning -- or at least an opening -- for the debate to move on immigration reform."
Students from New York, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the Washington area participated in the ceremony, adorned in caps and gowns and marching to "Pomp and Circumstance." They held up signs and chanted "What do we want? Dream Act. When do we want it? Now."
They also heard speeches from representatives of organizations supporting immigration reform, as well as from several undocumented students who are at risk of being deported.
Fernando Rivera, 18, of Takoma Park came with a group from Casa de Maryland, one of the local organizations that took part in the event.
He has been coming to the mock graduations for four years. But this year, he said, felt different.
"A movement is a step-by-step process," said Rivera, a U.S. citizen, who plans to attend Virginia Tech in the fall. "Change is not made from morning to night. You have to make the base for it. And I think we will make the movement work. Perseverance is all we need."